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The most dubious distinctions and unwanted records in sport

The New Jersey Nets have lost their first 16 games of the NBA season and, with one road game left on a devilish West Coast swing, look like a mortal lock to match the 0 and 17 landmark of early season futility set in 1988/89 by the Miami Heat and equalled by the ever-hapless Los Angeles Clippers ten years later.

The Nets are not poorly coached and the roster has clearly not quit on Lawrence Frank. However, injuries to guards Devin Harris and Courtney Lee and overall “talent issues” have sent them spiralling on a losing skid that may well see them surpass the unwanted record. Simply put, the likes of starters Trenton Hassell and Josh Boone don’t have the quality required to come out on top, however infrequently, against their opponents. Things have got so bad that they recently lost at home to the arguably-more-hapless New York Knicks.

The Nets’ descent into potentially precedent-setting ignominy is just one of many of sport’s dubious distinctions. From the NFL and MLB to the English Premier League, Formula 1 and boxing, the owners of such unwanted records become part of the folklore of their respective sports and, in the case of some, almost a comical euphemism for continued miserable failure and bad luck. Read on as the Sports Bloke examines 10 of the most dubious distinctions in sport.

Major League Baseball
Although there’s never a shortage of struggling MLB teams, none can match the horrific record of the Pittsburgh Pirates. On September 7 2009, the Pirates lost to the Chicago Cubs. It was their 82nd game of the season and condemned them to a 17th successive sub-500 season. No team in MLB history (or any American sports franchise) has ever matched Pittsburgh’s losing streak.

NBA
There isn’t a single NBA diehard who doubts that the Los Angeles Clippers are jinxed. Take this season for example. Armed with the No 1 pick, they made the correct selection in Blake Griffin only for their new signing to blow his knee out on a dunk in a pre-season game. At the time of writing, Griffin has yet to play for the Clippers. Although the Nets may surpass the Clippers 0 and 17 mark for consecutive early season losses, the franchise holds so many unwanted records that it has become a by-word for futility. To save time and space, I’ll only cite two. The Clippers are the oldest NBA team never to appear in the NBA finals. They are one of three teams (Memphis and Charlotte are the others) to have never won a Conference Championship or Division Title in their history.

Boxing
Far away from the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and Caesers Palace, British boxer Peter Buckley carved out his own particular niche in boxing. He lost more fights than any other boxer in history. The Birmingham welterweight lost 256 of this 300 professional bouts, making a living as a durable punching bag for up-and-coming fighters including Prince Naseem Hamed, Duke McKenzie, Scott Harrison and Kell Brook. At one point, he lost 88 consecutive fights. Regardless of their record, anyone prepared to make a living as a boxer deserves respect. It was fitting, if a little unexpected, that Buckley won his 300th and final fight when he scored a four round points victory over Matin Muhammad in his hometown in October 2008.

Cricket
Former England captain Mike Atherton always struck a lonely figure, an obdurate leader hamstrung by the ineptitude of national selectors and surrounded by mediocre teammates unable to stand up to superior Australian, Pakistani and Indian teams. Although Atherton led his country with stoicism and made big scores against most countries, he was regularly tormented by metronomic Aussie opening bowler Glenn McGrath. Over the years, Atherton was dismissed 19 times by McGrath in test matches, a record for any bowler against one batsman.

Football
You have to feel sympathy with fans of perennial League Two strugglers Rochdale. The Greater Manchester club were relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League in 1974 and have remained there ever since. At the time of writing, Spotland’s finest have spent 35 years in the basement of English football, longer than any other English club.

NFL
The NFL prides itself on the “Any Given Sunday” principle that preaches league-wide parity and the fact that any outcome is possible in any game. Sadly, the Detroit Lions spent the entire 2008 season disproving this theory. With inferior offence, defence and special teams, the hapless Lions conspired to lose all 16 of their regular season games. Their futility surpassed that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who, in 1976, went 0 and 14 in their first season in the league.

FA Cup
The historical showpiece of the English football season has provided a seemingly endless stream of memorable moments over the last 120 years. Until 1985, no player had suffered the shame of being sent off in an FA Cup final. Manchester United defender etched his name into FA Cup history when he scythed down Everton’s Peter Reid in the 1985 final and was deservedly dismissed from the field. Down to 10 men, the Reds forced extra time and secured victory when Norman Whiteside curled a delicate left footed shot past Neville Seville and inside the far post to score the only goal of the game.

Formula 1
It might be a little bit harsh to label a driver who only appeared in three Grands Prix as the worst racer Formula 1 has ever seen but Jean-Denis Deletraz’s efforts were so poor that he is definitely in the conversation. For example, in his debut race, the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, the Swiss driver qualified 25th out of 26 cars and was lapped by leader Michael Schumacher after 10 laps. Deletraz did manage to find some speed at one stage. Unfortunately, this burst of pace came in the pit lane and he was penalised as a consequence. When his gear box finally failed after 57 laps, he had been lapped 10 times and was approximately 13 minutes behind the race leader.

Baseball
The Philadelphia Phillies may have contested the last two World Series but they also hold one of the most unwanted records in American sport. Although they’ve never been lovable losers and cursed by bad luck, no team has ever lost quite like the Phillies. A lot of this is down to the fact that they’ve existed since 1883. In July 2007, the Phillies were routed 10-2 by the St Louis Cardinals. It was a landmark defeat that condemned them to becoming the first American sports team to lose 10,000 games.

English Premier League
In July 2007, a poll in The Times newspaper labelled Southampton’s one-game wonder Ali Dia as the worst footballer ever to play in the Premier League. Saints manager Graeme Souness had been led to belive Dia was the cousin of World Footballer of the Year George Weah. He was also told the player had played for Paris St Germain and won 12 international caps for Senegal. None of this was true. When Dia replaced Saints legend Matt le Tissier in a 1996 game against Leeds United, everyone realised the awful truth. His performance, described by Le Tissier as “embarrassing to watch”, was mercifully cut short after 52 minutes when Souness cottoned on to the fact he had been duped about Dia’s credentials.

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Sport’s most memorable David vs Goliath moments

British heavyweight boxer David Haye faces a mammoth task in Nuremberg tonight as he attempts to wrest the WBA Heavyweight title from the mountainous champion Nikolai Valuev. The Hayemaker is dwarfed by his 7ft 2in opponent to such a degree that the fight couldn’t possibly be billed as anything other than David vs Goliath.

The idea of the overmatched underdog taking on and beating an opponent with superior strength and talent is one of sport’s most compelling dreams. But it doesn’t always work out that way. And there’s more to the David and Goliath concept than seemingly mismatched individuals, sometimes it can relate to entire teams.

To mark David Haye’s world heavyweight title challenge, the Sports Bloke has compiled a short list of the most memorable David vs Goliath moments in sport.

1) Nate Robinson rejects Yao Ming
November 2006, Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks defending their homecourt against the Houston Rockets. Rockets all-star, 7ft 6in Yao Ming receives the ball in the low post and prepares to make a jump shot. From the weakside, the Knicks ever-energetic sixth man, 5ft 7in Nate Robinson goes airborne to swat Yao’s shot away, poking the “Great Wall” in the eye for good measure. You’d like to think Yao’s teammates ensured he never lived this down. Winner: David
Watch: Nate Robinson rejects Yao Ming

2) Jonah Lomu dominates Tony Underwood
New Zealander Jonah Lomu burst onto the world sports scene courtesy of his dominant performances at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Left-winger Lomu, described by England captain Will Carling as a physical “freak”, was the size of most forwards but with pace that would shame most backs. You had to feel for the opposition right wing who directly faced him.
When New Zealand faced England in the tounament’s semi-finals, Tony Underwood had this onerous task. He was dwarfed by Lomu’s size and destroyed by his strength. Lomu ran rings around him for 80 minutes, running in four tries as New Zealand cruised into the final. At one point, Lomu actually ran over Underwood and teammate Mike Catt before crossing the line. Winner: Goliath
Watch: Jonah Lomu destroys England

3) The ultimate act of FA Cup giantkilling
The 1988 FA Cup final proved beyond doubt that David can defeat Goliath in a team game. In the red corner, Liverpool, the finest team in the country, league champions with international class players throughout their squad. In the blue corner, Wimbledon, the team known as the Crazy Gang, a team of wind-up merchants renowned for their long ball tactics, who, 10 years previously, had been playing in non-league football.
For Goliath, read John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Alan Hansen. For David, read John Fashanu, Dave Beasant and Dennis Wise. In TV terms, it was the equivalent of the University Challenge episode of the Young Ones where Vivian, Neil, Mike and Rik represent Scumbag College against a team of Oxbridge toffs.
However they managed it, the Dons got under Liverpool’s collective skin. They had the temerity to take the lead when Lawrie Sanchez flicked Wise’s free kick inside Liverpool’s far post. When Beasant saved a John Aldridge penalty (the first in FA Cup final history), the game was up for Liverpool. They were the victims of the most famous FA Cup giantkilling. Winner: David

4) When Goliath squashed David
Whether or not you consider professional wrestling a sport, there’s no denying that Wrestlemania 3 provided the WWF’s ultimate David vs Goliath moment. And I’m not talking about the Hulk Hogan vs Andre The Giant main event. Cast your eye further down the card and you’ll see a six-man tag team match featuring King Kong Bundy and two midgets vs Hillbilly Jim and two midget partners.
Memorably described by commentator Gorilla Monsoon as “a condominium with legs”, the 440-pound Bundy made an ultimately forgettable (and possibly bad taste) match memorable when he was disqualified for body-slamming the 4ft 4in, 60-pound midget Little Beaver and followed it up with his trademark giant elbow drop. Winner beyond doubt: Goliath
Watch: King Kong Bundy marmelises midget at Wrestlemania 3

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Basketball in Britain mirrors soccer in the States

In two short hours, the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz will tip-off at London’s 02 Arena in front of a sell-out crowd. It’s the third successive year that an NBA pre-season game has taken place in London and, for the third year in a row, all the tickets were snapped up months before the game.

Although the league has only taken tentative steps in the UK, interest in the NBA here is definitely rising. With the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, we have a competitive national team, a couple of recognisable faces playing significant minutes for NBA teams and some TV commitment from Channel 5 and possibly ESPN.

Basketball is starting to gain traction in the UK in exactly the same way the English Premier League (EPL) is enjoying increasing popularity in the States. Why? Because people want to see the best. The British Basketball League (BBL) can’t boast players of the same calibre as the NBA just as Major League Soccer can’t compare to the quality of play in the EPL, La Liga or Serie A. Forget patriotism, fans want the spectacle, the stars and the big crowds that come with the top sports products.

Thanks to satellite TV and the Internet, US soccer fans and British NBA fans now have easy access to sports that were previously all but inaccessible. Two seasons ago, I survived on one NBA game a week and got my basketball fix by going to a few BBL games. Last season, I subscribed to NBA League Pass Broadband and was watching 20-25 games a week.

The same thing is happening with soccer in the US now. Major League Soccer, boosted by the David Beckham hype machine, draws decent crowds but, beyond the die-hards, has no impact on American sporting culture. It’s visibly an inferior product. However, once ESPN began showing the UEFA Champions League and the EPL in the States, people sat up and took notice.

With the likes of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard appearing on American screens, the interest started to grow. NBA writer Mark Stein revealed himself to be a long-time Manchester City fan who makes an annual trip to Britain to watch games. The Champions League was discussed semi-regularly on PTI. Even Bill “I don’t do British” Simmons, opined on his methods of selecting a Premier League team to root for. As a lifelong West Ham fan, it absolutely killed me he, just like Steve Nash, picked our arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

What else do Americans get from watching English soccer? I think the crowds play an enormous part. I’ve been to NBA and MLB games in the States and there’s definitely a vibe of enforced participation. it’s easy to tune out snatches of music, organ riffs and instructions to clap your hands and become a silent spectator. Imagine if this is your traditional experience of live sport and then you see, say, a Liverpool vs Manchester United game with unprompted full-on chanting and singing for the entire 90 minutes. Surely you’d be hooked, or at least want to experience that for yourself in person.

So, how will basketball capture the imagination of British sports fans? The American emphasis on each game being an “event” will definitely help. The draft adds to the impression that any team is capable of winning a championship. There’s a lot of jaded football fans in Britain tired of a league that only two or three teams can win. What’s the point in paying throught the nose for a season ticket when the best your team can realistically do is finish 11th? I’ve followed the New York Knicks for 20 years. The last seven seasons have been awful. But free agency in the NBA gives fans hope. The Premier League can’t say the same.

And with that said, I’m off to the 02 to watch some high quality hoops.

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Fabio Capello gives England every reason to believe

The dust has settled on England’s excellent performance against a disappointing Croatia at Wembley seven days ago. England’s five-star, five goal effort against a team who, less than two years ago, were considered the Three Lions’ nemesis-in-chief, secured World Cup qualification with two group games remaining.

It’s easy to get caught up in hysteria around the England football team. No sooner had the final whistle blown and journalists, pundits and fans were speculating on just how far Fabio Capello’s squad can go in South Africa in the
summer of 2010.

I don’t think we can draw any firm conclusions from the qualifying campaign. Many teams have dominated their groups in qualification only to flop in the finals. England in the 1988 European Championships immediately springs to mind. But England’s performance last week did provide firm evidence of the squad’s improvement under Fabio Capello and the methods the Italian has employed to get the most from his squad of highly paid superstars.

Capello described England’s performance in the first 30 minutes of the Croatia game as “perfect”. He praised his team’s passing, work-rate, pressing and movement. Contrast this with the nervous ineptitude of the same players under Steve McClaren against the same opposition two years before. Thanks to Capello, England are now a cohesive unit with a team ethos. Each player knows his role, understands his responsibilities and realises that any dip in performance will see him dropped. In short, Capello has made playing for England a privilege that must be earned and the players have responded.

Equally important is Capello’s relationship with his players. Unlike McClaren and Sven-Goran Erikkson, he has no interest in being their friend. He stands apart as their boss and his respect must be earned. After the final whistle against Croatia, skipper John Terry bounded towards Capello looking to put the Italian taskmaster in a celebratory bear hug. Don Fabio’s reaction? A simple, business-like handshake on a job well done. The England team is no longer the cosy club headed by JT, Stevie G and Wazzer or the better-to-be-lucky-than-good Eriksson regime where David Beckham received preferential treatment.

The dramatic two-year turnaround in the team’s fortunes has also confirmed one my own pet theories concerning the England team namely that there are just a handful of coaches able to successfully manage an elite group of English players. With wages and egos way out of control, any sign of weakness or ineptitude from an international manager is going to make these players switch off. Put it this way: who do you think has the gravitas and experience to make them listen and work? A man whose greatest achievement was to reach the UEFA Cup final and get thrashed or the man who has won league titles in Spain and Italy and a couple of European trophies to boot?

Aside from Capello, only Mourinho, Ferguson, Wenger, Hiddink and, at a stretch, Guardiola and Lippi, appear to have what it takes to command the respect and attention of a group of England players.

That aside, with qualification in the bag, what can we expect next summer? Anyone who tells you England will win the World Cup is a liar or at the very least a well-meaning optimist. England’s strong qualification puts them in a group of contenders trailing favourites Brazil and Spain. They number one of five or six teams who could win it if things go their way.

But predicting anything more than that is fanciful. And here’s why. Rooney, Gerrard et al are firing on all cylinders now. Next summer, they will have at least 60 more games in their legs. If recent seasons are anything to go by, most of England’s stars will see late season action at the latter stages of the Champions League. Come the World Cup, some will be knackered while other might not even be fit at all.

Secondly, there’s no telling how these players will respond to high-pressure situations. Can England win a game if they are reduced to ten men? How will they react if they fall victim to a chronic refereeing blunder? And what on earth will happen if the dreaded spectre of the penalty shootout appears on the horizon?

Capello’s England have not had the opportunity to answer these questions yet. We’ll only find out in South Africa. Yet, just two years on from McClaren and the most recent nadir of the England national team, Capello has instilled belief, passion, pride, skill and effort back into this side. Right now, expectations are rightfully high. Come next summer, we will be among the contenders. As for winning the World Cup, let’s be quietly confident, leave the WAGs at home and see how far this team can go.

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All in the game: sportsmen who could be characters in The Wire

A recent Guardian Football Weekly podcast suggested that The Wire’s Baltimorean drug lord Marlo Stanfield would be adept in the English Premier League owing to his uncanny ability to take corners.

The Wire is, in my humble opinion, the greatest TV show ever made. I love it almost as much as I love the sporting endeavours of Steve Nash, Tim Lincecum and Stuart Broad. So, with props to James Richardson and Co for getting the cogs of my brain to turn, the Sports Bloke presents a list of sportsmen who could be characters in The Wire.

Detective Jimmy McNulty is… Andrew Flintoff
McNulty, a supremely talented murder investigator acknowledged by his peers as “natural po-lice” but with an appetite for booze-based self-destruction. Sounds similar to a certain English cricketer we all know and love? Like McNulty, Flintoff has infuriated his bosses and colleagues at points of his career only to be welcomed back into the fold thanks to some superb individual efforts. Both men also ended up “riding the boat” or, in Fred’s case, a pedalo, after cracking under the pressure of their day jobs.

Avon Barksdale is…  Ricky Ponting
At one point, Avon ruled the Baltimore drug trade. His position was untouchable thanks to the support of Stringer Bell and his enforcers Wee-Bey, Stinkum and Bird. As captain of Australia, Ponting dominated world cricket thanks in part to his cricketing “muscle”. For Bell, Bey, Stinkum and Bird, read Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. When Barksdale lost his lieutenants, he lost control of the game and was jailed at the conclusion of series three. When Ponting attempted to regain the Ashes without his best players, he came up short too.

Bunny Colvin is…  Isiah Thomas
Colvin created Hamsterdam, a chaotic open drug market in which dealers and hoppers could operate free from the threat of arrest. In the world of sport, only Isiah’s tenure as New York Knicks general manager comes close to matching Colvin’s lunacy. Bad trades, horrific man management, a crippling wage bill and a well-publicised sexual harassment scandal all punctuated Zeke’s time in charge at the Garden. If anything, this comparison is unfair to Bunny Colvin.

Ellis Carver is…   Tony Adams
The Sports Lass is convinced the overriding theme of The Wire is the redemption and evolution of Ellis Carver. When we first meet Carver, he and partner Herc specialise in cracking heads of dealers “the Western District way”. As The Wire develops, so does Carver. Stung by his betrayal of Cedric Daniels in series one, he ultimately discovers a more cerebral approach to policing, softening to the point where he attempts to adopt young Randy Wagstaff in series four. In sport, only ex-gooner Tony Adams can rival such a transformation. In the early 1990s, Adams was a booze hound who spent Christmas in jail. Ten years later, he was quoting philosophy, earning a university degree and learning to play the piano.

Omar Little is…  Kobe Bryant
Prior to being gunned down by young Canard in series five, Omar scratched out a profitable living as a stick-up artist par excellence inhabiting a lonely world somewhere between the police and the street. Like Omar, Kobe is also an outsider. He grew up in Italy and entered the NBA aged 17, unable to relate to the locker room banter and bling. However, his solitary existence has never stopped him from excelling professionally. Omar’s focus in his vengeful pursuit of Avon Barkdale’s crew in series one is eerily reminiscent of Kobe’s cool detachment as he fired the Lakers to NBA championship victory over the Orlando Magic earlier this year.

Proposition Joe Stewart is…  Harry Redknapp
Prop Joe survived the ravaged Baltimore streets thanks to his ability to strike deals to save his skin. His “buy for a dollar, sell for two” ethos echoes that of Spurs manager Harry Redknapp, a man who cuts deals for football players as readily as Joe distributes dope. Like Joe, Redknapp has an ungrateful nephew which means Cheese – played by Staten Island’s streetwise troubadour Method Man – must be Chelsea’s Frank Lampard.

Marlo Stanfield is…  Kevin Garnett
After ousting Avon Barksdale as Baltimore’s drug kingpin, Marlo and his crew ruled the streets with a mix of cold-blooded intensity and instant vengeance. Like Marlo, KG is the most intimidating figure in his arena, instilling fear into opponents and teammates (remember when he made Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis cry on the bench) alike with his demands for 100% loyalty and effort. It’s no stretch to imagine Garnett evoking Marlo’s credo “my name is my name” in response to hecklers in opposition arenas.

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